Fishermen today are keener and hungrier than they used to be, says Walter Bruce, long-time fisherman from South Lake, Prince Edward Island (PEI).

With 48 years on the water, Bruce has fished a variety of species, with his bread and butter today being the lucrative North Shore lobster fishery. But if you want to talk fishery politics with Bruce, just mention tuna. The veteran fisherman was recently appointed to the Fisheries Resource Conservation Council (FRCC) by Canada’s federal fisheries minister, Loyola Hearn. On the council he will be in a position to apply his knowledge to the development of a long-term strategic approach to Atlantic herring conservation, while adding input to a research project being carried out on the migration and mating habits tuna in U.S. and Canadian waters.

Tuna in North Lake and other areas of PEI had their heyday, so to speak, in the early 1970s. Bruce started in 1969 to fish tuna and says the fishery was driven by sport fishing charters. “We had to pay someone $10 a tuna to bury them. Japanese came here for the sport of catching a big one,” he says.

Between 1972 and ’74 the value started to spike when the Japanese discovered they could fly tuna to Japan. “The market was good there and it just happened that the catches were being depleted in South African and Japanese waters.”

For Bruce and many others across the island, the tuna fishery took off like wildfire. He recalls getting paid $25 to $30 a pound, at a time when catching two to three a day meant a pretty good summer. He blames the downturn in the tuna about the mid-70s on California seiner fleets depleting stocks in the Pacific and coming to the East Coast of Canada to seine small tuna. “They took out about five or six year-cycles of growth,” he says.

Today, Bruce says, as far as catching tuna is concerned, the fishery is in great shape. But “if we listen to the international [stories] about the fishery we would be thinking that we are probably fishing the last of the bluefin stocks.”

He says fishermen on the East Coast were told the same thing back in ’73 when the decline began to set in. “The U.S. fishermen aren’t catching any right now. They have 50 percent of the quota and are only catching one percent. The Japanese have 21 percent [of the quota] the same as we have here.”

Currently the PEI tuna fishermen are not shipping to Japan. “Air freight and freight in general went up and our dollar went up, so fish that used to go to Japan are going to the U.S.,” explains Bruce, adding that about 80 per cent of tuna goes to U.S. markets. “It’s closer so freight is less, and they don’t have the supply themselves,” says Bruce.

The U.S. does not have a quota in Canadian waters, which is why a research project undertaken by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans is dependent on East Coast tuna fishermen to offer information that will help determine the migration habits, sexual maturity and aging of the giant bluefin.

“Large pelagic studies are much different than groundfisheries studies,” notes Dr. John Nielson, who is with DFO and works out of St. Andrews, New Brunswick. He says this study is very reliant on the people who fish to get the information back to the scientists.

That is, scientists on both sides of the border.

“We hope that our research will find out to what extent the eastern and western stocks mix in Canadian waters,” states Dr. Nielson.

An attempt was made last November to have a short experimental fishery to allow fishermen to bring back tuna ear bones for this study, and also to see just what the numbers were at that time of year. However, Bruce says tags just did not get to PEI [from the U.S.] on time. “We had our boats lined up, ” says Bruce, and adds they waited for two weeks. “It might have worked if we could have gotten the tags. These tags are a tracking device and show that nobody is stealing someone else’s quota.”

Bruce says of the study, “The bottom line is they [the scientists] don’t know that much about tuna and they’ll be the first to admit it.”

Bruce’s 48 years on the water have provided him with a wide knowledge of migration. The tagging system, he says, has proved that tuna from the western Atlantic are showing up in Mediterranean waters. “Europeans are saying that fish swimming is their [waters] are their fish coming home, and we are saying it’s our fish they are catching over there,” says Bruce. These fish are not necessarily all tagged, but he believes if a large school is swimming into Mediterranean waters, it’s likely the fish came from the same place.

He says there is a major scarcity of herring due to overfishing in the U.S., and that the tuna have gone almost a 100 miles further north.

For Dr. Nielson the study is one way of keeping the two countries together for the betterment of the tuna fishery. “If we had a non-traditional fishery [a fall fishery, for example] that would allow us to obtain information and give a better understanding of mating and migration habits,” he says. A season is planned for next year (2008) on both sides of the border.